12/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Corporate Freshman: Pinnacle-itis - How Do You Stay on Top?

Have you ever noticed that most people who have reached the top of a profession only stay there for a little while? I call it "pinnacle-itis." Box office bombshells usually have a few years of massive celebrity, and then they fade into the background of other working actors. High-profile CEOs spend a bit of time leading the charge in Corporate America, until they are replaced and left to retire with their millions. And yes, authors. I still don't know if it's better to start with a bestseller or work your way up to one. Either way, most literary darlings only rule the publishing world for a short time. The phrase "fifteen minutes of fame" is a cliché for a reason.

Here's the problem with a brief period of major success. What do you do afterward? Most people who make it to the top are naturally ambitious. They want to see their careers go up, up, up -- not up, up, down. So I've gotten to thinking -- are there things we can do to stay in the public consciousness once we get there? Here are a few ideas.

1) Reinvent ourselves: The most prominent example that comes to mind is Madonna. She could have been a flash in the pan back in the early 80s, but she managed to nail the culture of all the years since and adapt her style to it. The result? She's still one of the most well-paid and recognizable entertainers in the world. The truth is that we simply can't achieve relevance now the way we did five years ago. Our charge is to continually evolve with the needs of our society, or risk fading into obscurity.

2) Be productive and prolific: High-achievement individuals are visible, and they're visible because they are always putting themselves out there. Instead of basking in the glory, they're always looking ahead to the next project. It's not always easy to predict which of our endeavors will keep us flying high, so the best strategy is to put a lot of things out there, in a variety of different areas, and watch to see which ones stick and which fall flat. The more we do, the more we increase our odds of hitting upon the next big thing.

3) Accept that the trajectory of most careers looks like a heart rate: You know, a zig-zag. Much as we'd like to believe that effort and acknowledgment has a linear relationship to success and further acknowledgement, it's typically not the case. We might reach a certain high point in our careers, only to experience a setback and have to work our way back up. Expecting things only to improve, or to have to put in less effort because we've reached a certain level, is simply not realistic given the world we live in.

Pinnacle-itis is a very real phenomenon that is rarely talked about. Please share your ideas for overcoming it!